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Oakland A’s 2018 rotation: Stock up, or stand pat?

Should Oakland be trying harder to add to their starting rotation this winter?

The Answer, or another No. 5?
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have enjoyed a productive offseason so far. They targeted two areas of need, their bullpen and outfield, and they’ve made strong additions to address both. They could still use another lefty reliever, as well as concrete answers on catcher Bruce Maxwell’s legal future, but overall they’ve made real progress this winter.

One department that hasn’t received attention is their starting rotation. Earlier in December, insider Jane Lee reported that “a veteran starter is low on (Oakland’s) priority list,” specifying that they’re “not overly impressed with guys that would be available to us.” Is that the right call, or is it a mistake to stand pat on their young rotation? Let’s take a closer look!

First, a trivia question: Who made the single best start for the A’s in 2017, as measured by Game Score? Who made the second-best? Answers coming later in the post!

Oakland’s starters have finished bottom-10 in MLB in the following stats in each of the last two years, 2016 and ‘17:

  • WAR, both types
  • Innings pitched
  • Win Probability Added
  • Barely missed the cut, by one or two places in one year: ERA, FIP, K/BB

The big picture is clear: The A’s rotation has been trash for the last two years, and the biggest recent change has been removing Sonny Gray from the top of the group. To their credit, they did manage to rank 11th in Quality Starts this year, but even then Sonny was the difference that pushed them above league-average in that stat.

The good news is the rotation is full of promising young arms. They could break out any day! The bad news is none of those breakouts have happened yet in real life, and there are never any guarantees in the world of pitching. Most notably, nobody in the entire group has ever thrown 200 frames in a season. Here’s the current depth chart, in somewhat arbitrary order, including each one’s professional career-high in innings:

  • Sean Manaea (166⅓)
  • Kendall Graveman (186)
  • Daniel Mengden (170⅓)
  • Jharel Cotton (165)
  • Paul Blackburn (143)
  • Daniel Gossett (167⅔)
  • Jesse Hahn (115⅓)
  • Andrew Triggs (74⅔)

Note: A’s still consider Triggs a starter, reports Lee, but aren’t sure on Chris Bassitt. I also didn’t include Frankie Montas or Raul Alcantara, whom I consider relievers now.

What’s worse, of those innings highs, only Gossett’s came in 2017, primarily because he was the only one who didn’t hit the disabled list this year. Repeat: Every starter Oakland is counting on next year spent time on the DL this year, except the guy who posted the worst ERA of the bunch. In terms of workload, everyone else either treaded water or took a step back. There’s far more to the longevity equation than pure innings counts, but this is ridiculous. The red flag has grown big enough to replace the tarps on Mount Davis.

I’m not even going to bother analyzing the starters’ performances when they did manage to take the mound. Each one can be summed up as follows: He showed occasional flashes of his strong potential, but struggled with consistency and ended up with overall numbers that were average or worse. Only Mengden (in 7 starts) and Blackburn (in 10 starts) managed to post positive stats, and they both came in small samples. Click here for more detailed analysis from Nico.

All of that leaves us wondering: Which of these starters (if any) will throw 200 innings in 2018, and which one (if any) will step up as the relative ace? You can make an educated guess or throw a dart at the wall, and probably end up with equal likelihood of being correct. (I also encourage you to record your guesses in the comments, so we can come back and laugh at ourselves next winter.)

The market

The A’s weren’t going to spend nine figures on a top-of-the-rotation free agent, nor should they have. Long-term contracts for starters are one of the worst gambles in baseball, up there with buying a house in Miami after signing with the Marlins. But they could absolutely buy innings if they wanted, which would give them some depth and reduce the chance of needing to call on another Chris Smith emergency backup. Address that red flag before it turns into a white one again, and before the mediocre bullpen is left picking up all the slack once more.

They have the money to make a move. Their three new additions in the bullpen and outfield (Petit, Pagan, Piscotty) aren’t even making $6 million combined, which means they did most of their homework without pushing the payroll above $60 million. They could add a setup reliever and a stopgap starter and still not come close to last year’s budget.

So who was out there, and were they really not worth a look? Who’s still left? Here are some free agents who were/are available on short, affordable deals, plus two popular trade candidates in italics.

  • Andrew Cashner
  • Jhoulys Chacin, to MIL
  • Tyler Chatwood, to CHC
  • Mike Fiers, to DET
  • Doug Fister, to TEX
  • Jaime Garcia
  • Brandon McCarthy, LAD (to ATL)
  • Miles Mikolas, to STL
  • C.C. Sabathia, to NYY
  • Jeff Samardzija, SF
  • Jason Vargas

I didn’t necessarily want all of these guys, and some weren’t real options. Sabathia was probably never truly available, and Chatwood got more than most of Athletics Nation would have offered (3/$38M). But the rest of these free agents got stopgap money, with Chacin and Mikolas leading the way at around 2/$15M, and it’s hard to see the remaining names doing much better (maybe 2/$20M at most?). McCarthy was available as a one-year salary dump, and Shark’s new nickname could be Albatross thanks to his absurd contract.

None of those names are meant to excite you, nor to slot in at the top of the rotation. But any one of them could have at least upgraded the unit’s depth, for the cost of money that isn’t being spent elsewhere. They’re simply meant to look more attractive than the proverbial Cesar Valdez, whom Oakland called on as early as April 20 this year.

The Answer?

The A’s find themselves with a wealth of promising but unreliable options, and with money to spend on an addition but slim pickings to choose from. There isn’t a specific name I had to have on that free agent list, but after watching the last two years I can’t help wondering if we’ll regret not grabbing any random one of them. Predicting pitching is a fool’s errand, which is exactly why you should overstock.

As for the incumbent group, here’s an answer to our trivia question. Oakland’s single best start of the year was made by Mengden, with his two-hit shutout against the Phillies — it was tied for the fifth-highest Game Score (90) in all of baseball. To find the second-best A’s start, you have to reach back to April when Jesse Hahn spun eight innings of one-hit ball against the Angels — giving us a reminder of the high ceiling he once held.

Perhaps those factoids give us a clue about the future. Nico included a poll in his recent post (linked above), and Mengden received nearly half of the 1,000 votes as the rotation’s prime breakout candidate. Meanwhile, Hahn is out of minor league options, so if the team wants to give him another chance to start then it’s now or never. If those two were combined with Manaea and Graveman, for example, then there may be just one more spot for either a new acquisition or an in-house battle for No. 5.

That leaves us at a stalemate, as you could make a good argument in favor of going any number of different routes. Keep Hahn, or move on? Play the kids, or stash as many as possible in Triple-A? I’d still like to add an arm, any arm, but I’m happy to trust the A’s on matters of pitching. Choose your own adventure in the poll below!

Some other free agents I didn’t mention, if you need inspiration for the “Someone even cheaper” option: Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Ricky Nolasco, Bartolo Colon

Poll

Which starting pitcher should the A’s add?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Andrew Cashner
    (139 votes)
  • 11%
    Jaime Garcia
    (101 votes)
  • 13%
    Jason Vargas
    (124 votes)
  • 13%
    Jeff Samardzija (trade)
    (117 votes)
  • 8%
    Someone even cheaper?
    (78 votes)
  • 37%
    None, stick with what we’ve got
    (333 votes)
892 votes total Vote Now